Hequ Horses: the largest of China’s indigenous horses

Bred on grasslands by the Yellow River, they are one of the largest of China’s indigenous horses.

As you ride on the prized Hequ horses, your heart will beat faster with your breath getting shorter. The scenery around you whizzes past into a blur and adds to the dizziness. In the place where is nearly 4,000 meters above sea level, you probably will be suffering from a mild case of altitude sickness. But some visitors are also on a high riding the legendary Hequ steed, one of China’s few indigenous horses, through the rangy grasslands of Maqu county where deep in the Gannan Tibet autonomous prefecture of Gansu province. The Tibetan herdsmen will laugh as you gallop through their flocks of sheep and yak , and shout to you: “Slow down and be careful of those marmot holes!” The herdsmen are proud of their horses and watch out for them constantly.

Their Hequ horses spring from the area where the junction of Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan provinces near the “first major bend” of the mighty Yellow River. The Hequ horse is one of China’s largest indigenous breeds and is famous for its riding, racing and drafting abilities. It ranks high among other native Chinese horses such as the Inner Mongolian breeds, Kazak mounts from the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region and those from Yunnan province down south.

“Tibetan culture and history is rich here and the Hequ horse is deeply embedded in our customs and practices. Our environment is very pure and that naturally gives rise to such a magnificent breed,” he says.

Maqu recently held its sixth annual horse race at its Gesar Horse Racing Center, attracting up to 200,000 spectators and participants. More than 600 horses from the region and beyond ran for prize money of more than 1 million yuan ($159,900). Riders and their mounts competed in events ranging from 1-km sprints to endurance races of up to 10 km in the five-day performances.

“The horse race has become one of our major draws. It has been very successful and has attracted a lot of attention. It’s also one of the best ways to showcase the Hequ horse and how proud we are of them,” Sonam says.

Gannan is a beautiful place, but life high up here amid the mountains can also be harsh. The horses are the local people’s transport means. They help them herd and do a lot of the manual work. They entertain and race for the people.”

“They are our closest friends.” said Ngok Detsa, a herdsman who offers horse treks to travelers in the warmer months.